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Is Co-production the Future?

Streamline Studio's Daniel Kozlov explains why working with partners in a production studio model is important

Streamline Studios was set up in 2001 and worked initially as an outsourcing company, building up its reputation over time and creating content for titles such as Gears of War, Unreal Torunament 3, Saint's Row and Ghost Recon 2, as well as latterly working on its own IP.

More recently the company has moved into working more fully with other developers on the co-production idea, as well as setting up its own music and sound service called Streamline Sound. Here account executive Daniel Kozlov explains the theory behind the production company model and why it's important for the future of the industry. First up, explain the production model that you work on.
Daniel Kozlov

A production model is something that effectively involves more than one party, so as a production company, one of the things we do is co-production. That's where we find a developer who has a core competency that we don't have - we're known for great art and audio, for example, but we don't do engineering.

So we'll find a developer that has talented engineers, or level designers, and then we'll come together to do an IP - whether it's our IP at that point, their IP, or someone else's, it doesn't matter.

As an example, we're working with Grin - out of Sweden - that relationship started out very basically, with us just doing content, but then it evolved and grew into a real co-production relationship when we were working with them on the script, working with them on some instances, working with them on procedural art, some level design.

In fact Julio [Abarca], who's working on that account, spent about a month in Sweden with Grin making sure that the art side of things gets done properly. They fly in, we fly out, so it's a much more integrated relationship. It's no longer "Here're some sketches," or "I have an idea, get me a pipeline of art."

It's more about having a great idea and finding others with the core competency, or something we don't have time to develop. In the end you get the royalties and split them, or you get a portion of the IP you created together. Another of the things we're working on right now is creating IPs with other companies and pitching them to the publishers as a team.

We see this as the future for the games industry, because ultimately it lowers the risks, the costs are lower because we don't have to have, for example, an engineering team in-house, nor does another company have to expand the art resources. It's the next step in evolution after outsourcing - effectively it's a Hollywood model here, where you have a production studio that sits in the middle.

Right now we're probably the only company in the industry that's pitching this, that's saying "Let's go do this" to different developers. How many projects can you effectively work on at the same time?
Daniel Kozlov

It depends on what kind of projects you're talking about. If you're talking about triple A projects, that takes a team of at least 50 people these days as a minimum, if you want to develop it in a reasonable time frame of about two years.

So basically we're looking to sustain as many as five to six projects when we hit the numbers, but it really depends on the size of the projects. Really down the line it comes to numbers, and the experience of the people we're working with. For an experienced developer they may be able to sustain more than a less experienced developer. I'm sure some people would look at that at feel that managing all the relationships must be a nightmare, but I guess you'd argue differently?
Daniel Kozlov

No, actually, I'd agree - it is a nightmare [laughs] So how do you get around it?
Daniel Kozlov

Well, one of the things that a production company has to be really good at is managing relationships. This is one of the key strengths of Streamline I think, the ability to manage relationships. We've worked on 35 projects in the last seven years, whereas a normal developer does two or three projects in two or three years.

When you've worked with so many parties, and everybody has their own understanding of art, pipelines, engineering, everybody has an opinion - and everyone structures their internal teams differently. You have to become an expert, but maybe this is why the outsourcing companies need to drive the evolution to co-production, because they have the ability to work with so many people over time.

But also developers too, because once you've worked with a few other companies, some outsourcers, you get to understand how others think - so it comes from both sides, but by definition the production company has to be able to manage those relationships... and it is a nightmare, and it takes a very long time. But while you're de-risking in terms of investment by cutting in-house costs and so on, surely there's a higher risk with relationships potentially not working out?
Daniel Kozlov

We never claim to be a company for everyone, nor do we claim we can fulfil everybody's needs - every company out there will find it easier to work with certain types of companies, whether it's cultural or procedural similarities, but when we pick a partner it's not like we run in there and shake hands right away, with high-fives... there's a due diligence process that involves looking at everything, your finances, your grandma's bicycle, and make sure that it's sound and that people all through the company understand what they're doing.

There's a fortunate side-effect, and maybe unfortunate as well, in that co-production means that you educate each other about how you work. You have to build in a ramp-up time to get familiarity, and that small ramp-up process is the best way to minimise communication problems. You've recently set up a record company to sit alongside the production side of things - what was the thinking behind that?
Daniel Kozlov

Well one of the reasons is, if you think about how much music is made in the games industry, the investment that goes into it compared to general game budgets is less than 1 per cent, it's pretty small.

But at the same time big publishers who have so many IPs have libraries of stuff that's just sitting there not doing anything. Some people love that music - I remember the Heroes of Might & Magic series had beautiful music, some of which was licensed, some was original, but I was wishing I could download the tracks, but I couldn't find them anywhere online.

That's exactly where a company like this comes in and offers to put that library online, which is virtually cost-free, and relatively few people would need to buy it before you could probably break even. It just makes so much sense.

Another reason was because there are a few parties behind this, including Black Hole Recordings, which is DJ Tiesto's company, and they were exploring how they could come into the games industry.

Daniel Kozlov is account executive at Streamline Studios. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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